Image: Amber Goldfarb in Pure Research 22 (Brian Quirt)

Pure Research

By Brian Quirt

Definition of insanity:

“Endlessly repeating the same process, hoping for a different result.”
– frequently attributed to Albert Einstein

Pure Research (1) came out of a conversation I had with former Theatre Centre Artistic Director David Duclos in 1997. At the time, the Theatre Centre operated a program called R & D – research and development – which successfully generated a wide range of innovative new works. But the title was inaccurate. We did a lot of development, but did not really do any research; product was the goal of every process. So I asked how the program could accommodate the sort of research, for example, that a high-tech company conducts, which may or may not result in a new item on the shelves. What would a program dedicated solely to theatre research look like?

Out of that conversation came two years of research workshops at the Theatre Centre (1998–9). One of my favourite sessions was led by Darren O’Donnell, who explored acupuncture as a potential rehearsal tool. Darren and an acupuncture therapist designed treatments to elicit specific emotional responses in their performers and tested the results in scene work. Darren concluded that it was a promising, but powerful, tool – subject to misuse and requiring substantial further testing before it could be used in a rehearsal process. I loved this workshop because it explored a single idea, in depth, within a safe and supportive environment. The idea did not have to work. The opportunity to fail was built into the program, as it must be in any research-driven process. By offering artists a place to explore outlandish or unusual ideas, the research program might, occasionally, reveal something wonderful. In the process, artists could learn about their work, themselves and their craft.

The results from those two years were not well documented, however, and the program never generated enough momentum to ensure its survival. I realized that if the Theatre Centre could not keep it alive, then this important program had to find a new home. David supported my desire to re-establish the research program as an activity of my company, Nightswimming. I retitled it Pure Research.

Here is what it currently looks like: Pure Research supports theatrical experiments that are not production oriented (that is what defines them as pure). Our intent is to pursue primary, practical studio research into issues of form and performance. We provide space, money and resources to artists conducting pure research into provocative theatrical questions. A call for proposals is distributed in February, and the workshops take place the following autumn. Successful candidates are offered three days in a fully equipped studio theatre. There are funds available to hire personnel (often actors, but past participants have included directors, writers, sound designers and DJs, among others), plus a small budget for expenses. Each workshop is thoroughly documented and written reports are posted on Nightswimming’s web site.

As dramaturg, my role is to select proposals (along with Nightswimming producer Naomi Campbell), work with the researchers to develop their experiments, attend all sessions and edit the reports they submit afterward. We are trying to isolate and indulge those moments in rehearsal when someone says, “I wish we could explore X, Y and Z, but we don’t have time.” We provide that time. Pure Research is designed to encourage artists to follow their instincts and make discoveries rather than generate new or explore existing material (text or movement) in ways that they have tried before.

Pure Research’s goals are very broad (to increase the amount and quality of theatre research in Canada) and very specific (to offer me, as a dramaturg, the opportunity to work with and/or observe the investigations of skilled artists as they gnaw on an issue of their choice).

And did I mention that every Pure Research session – at both the Theatre Centre and, last year, at Nightswimming – has been fun. Pressure comes only from the desire to learn; the joy of discovery; the act of searching for answers with time and freedom on our side; time in a theatre not fixing something, not rushing something, but digging deeply. Research invigorates and inspires.

In 2003, its first year, Pure Research took the form of two sessions, each comprising a total of twenty-four hours, over a period of two weeks. Kate Hennig conducted a workshop in the use of voice and sound as a rehearsal tool for actors; Martin Julien worked with two singers to examine the extent to which pitch, key and other musical devices influence our understanding of narrative. Both sessions were full of high pleasures (spending an afternoon with Martin and his actors discussing the semiotics of the musical voice) and juicy insights (seeing passages of Shakespeare come to exhilarating life during Kate’s vocal exercises). The workshops were challenging and the reports are intelligent and searching documents recording Kate’s and Martin’s productive experiments.

When I think back to my week guiding a Pure Research project, what sticks with me most powerfully is the feeling, or “tone,” of the room. In spite of the fact that we, as participants, collectively covered a lot of material – delved into many arcane theoretical concerns; utilized dozens of musical and textual sources; staged and choreographed many experiments in spatial and acoustic design – there seemed a great sense of expansiveness and relaxation in the theatre. The discussions were free-flowing and good-humoured; each day’s accomplishments were significant yet never overwhelming in their demands. Somehow, we found a productive middle ground between the structured rigour of the academy and the production pressures of the professional theatre. It felt to me like a new environment. The big question, I suppose, is: Whither research? What is the next step of application? How do you share what you’ve learned and provoke continuing explorations? (Julien)

One of the most fascinating discoveries that first year was that applicants found it difficult to articulate precise research questions, to separate inquiry from product. Many tantalizing creative projects were submitted – generally a show at an early stage of development – in which the proposed research directly related to the eventual execution of the piece. That is fine, of course, but it is not the point of our program. Are we asking for the wrong things? Have we not found the right words to frame the application process? As Martin suggests, Can pure theatre research exist? Or is the drive for product so powerful that it is nearly impossible to identify theatrical issues outside the context of creating a new piece or interpreting an existing one?

These questions have become incorporated into the program; through Pure Research, I am conducting research into research. And despite the challenges the program poses, terrific projects continue to appear. Guillaume Bernardi articulated a very specific need in his application to Pure Research 04: to examine, outside the rehearsal process, the moment of transition from speaking to singing and from singing back to speaking. As he wrote in his application,

My initial impulse in applying to Pure Research came from the strong desire (a need actually) to tackle a concrete, two-faced stumbling block that I encounter regularly in my work. Actors struggle when I request that they deliver their text in a more “musical” way; when I work with singers in my opera projects, they feel challenged when I ask them to deliver the recitative with more sensitivity to words. Those very concrete rehearsal challenges … reflect a bigger, more crucial issue: What is the territory that lies between speaking and singing? In rehearsal there is never enough time to really deal with this issue, but in the space opened by Pure Research, I would like to chart that territory, with both pragmatic and practical goals.

A happy by-product of the program is that it has emphasized research and led to new approaches in our own, ongoing creative work. Even though Pure Research was not created to foster particular results for the company, I have discovered that it feeds Nightswimming’s work in unpredictable ways, exposes us to ideas and individuals that our own work might never otherwise encounter. My instinct says that it is transforming our approach to play development in general. While Kate’s and Martin’s experiments have not yet had immediate repercussions in our own theatre practice, Pure Research has encouraged Nightswimming’s development process to be more adventurous and more open to instinct and serendipity. Through Pure Research, I have developed a great tolerance for the unknown. I have embraced patience as a tool. I have come to value performance research as both an end in itself (as in Pure Research) and as a starting point for creation.

Without Pure Research, I fear that our work would move inexorably closer to the product-oriented side of the play-development equation. I struggle to resist the temptation to make the Pure Research projects more applicable, more like conventional developmental workshops. To counter this, I am designing our ongoing developmental work to look more like Pure Research, using the program to shift our developmental processes toward the “purer” end of the spectrum, where I believe we will find more interesting places to begin new pieces of theatre. Increasingly, we are suggesting the Pure Research model to artists we want to commission, encouraging them to explore ideas rather than propose topics for a new work. The result is that we have found ourselves conducting what are – in essence – applied research sessions. The challenge we face is the same as that faced by artists who submit to Pure Research: to keep the emphasis on search not creation.

For example, in the past two years, we spent twenty half-day sessions with actor Andy Massingham, exploring slapstick and pratfalls as a way of generating movement phrases.

We refused to worry at the time about creating product; our work was almost entirely about how to create rather than what to create. Brian allowed me carte blanche as to the creation of Rough House (the show that evolved out of this work). I was instructed to take my time and keep in touch occasionally. Terrific. Julia Sasso suggested that I film myself improvising, as a way of developing material. So I created an archive of all the falls, rolls, and slapstick bits I had been doing all these years. More like “researchals” than rehearsals. I resisted looking at the tape until the end of the third session. It was full of chaos; as a cohesive whole it seemed hopeless, yet an uncanny thread started to weave its way through the anarchy. The difference between making it happen and letting it happen was asserting itself. I did my best not to stand in its way. I didn’t know what I had, but I was elated. (Massingham)

In July and November 2003, we conducted research workshops with playwright Claudia Dey, who wanted to watch her writing being explored by a choreographer, an actor and two dancers. She brought a new text to each workshop, and by the end of each two-day session, we had a staged version of it. But in neither case was that product meant to be part of the eventual work. By working with a different choreographer each time, we forced ourselves to find new ways of physicalizing Claudia’s dense, poetic text.

I learned that the moments that feel somehow “right” are often indescribably so – they just are. Once these accidental discoveries are made, the moments are marked. And so the experiment becomes the thing, the performable thing, the eventual show. This transition from discovering to actually marking moments is achieved through a combination of detailed and vigorous rehearsal that at the same time remains open to all possibility. It is one part craft and one part instinct. Initially the process seems murky, ill defined – and eventually you realize that a code is being devised. (Dey)

In October 2003, we conducted a two-day research workshop with choreographer Julia Sasso and a group of fourteen actors and dancers. The focus was very specific: to explore her choreographic process by testing a series of exercises with actors and dancers together. We did not know what the results would be; generating new material was not the point; the movement that was created during the two sessions – while wonderful – would not be used in a future piece. But we learned that certain choreographic exercises were very effective with actors, that the physical barriers between actors and dancers did disappear and that Julia’s approach to movement would work in this new context. This knowledge then inspired the design of our next process – the creation of her new piece (the betrayal project) incorporating both actors and dancers.

The most effective Pure Research workshop eliminates expectations and allows the search for discovery to govern the process. Success is proportional to the purity of intention (the determination to ensure that the research is free of developmental goals). You cannot enter the research expecting certain results or with an eye to an eventual product. Doing so immediately skews the process and taints the research: You can never be free of a desire to shape the results unless you do not know what the results should be. It is akin to an improvisational performance in which you accept that a few gems will be generated among the dross. We have been elated to find that purity of intention and elimination of expectation are producing substantial benefits in our actual developmental work as well.

Underlying the program is my belief that we need more spaces in which to search and research. It comes back to faith – I believe that the cumulative information from Pure Research, over time, will be valuable for the company and the community. Each session offers specific insights and provokes new ideas that will blossom later; it challenges conventions and demands creative thinking.

Get rid of the phrase, “Will it work?” and replace it with “Try this” and “What if …?” Replace fear with possibility. Make knowledge itself the product and see what happens.

Part of what I have discovered by doing Pure Research is that, to my surprise, no one else is doing it. Our universities are home to thousands of research investigations each year, but few of them relate directly to the performance issues that our theatre companies face each day. How can we bring together our needs and their resources? Established theatres are entirely focused on producing new work, and at times, on developing new work, but rarely think about how they create new work, about theatre, society or ideas. Who, other than dramaturgs, will insist that our theatre make time and money available for this research?

Pure Research is a tiny, imperfect, incomplete program. It makes up two of my favourite weeks each year. Can Pure Research be truly “pure”? Yes, although it seems that even I cannot prevent myself from applying it. A colleague recently asked me about a new process we are starting, “Is that a Pure Research project, or a new show?” My answer: “Yes.”


Pure Research 03 included two research sessions:

Beneath the Poetry: Magic Not Meaning, by Kate Hennig – an exploration of intuitive and metaphysical connections between voice and text

Voice, Music and Theatrical Narrative, by Martin Julien – experiments regarding the influence of live vocal musical sound on the uses and meaning of narrative within a theatrical context.

Pure Research 04 took place May 10–21, 2004, at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. It featured sessions by Guillaume Bernardi and visual artist Heather Nicol.

Works Cited
Bernardi, Guillaume. Pure Research application. 1 Dec. 2003.
Dey, Claudia. E-mail to the author. 8 Jan. 2004.

Julien, Martin. E-mail to the author. 4 Jan. 2004.
Massingham, Andy. Letter to the author. 15 Dec. 2003.

Reprinted by permission from Canadian Theatre Review, CTR 119, Summer 2004, Creative Research and New Play Development, edited by Brian Quirt and DD Kugler.